Where the wild things aren't

Briana Waters is on trial in Tacoma for her alleged role in the 2001 arson at the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture. It was one of a number of incidents of vandalism in the Northwest attributed to Earth Liberation Front's campaign to rid the world of things that aren't "wild." So what is wild?
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Briana Waters and child. (supportbriana.org)

Briana Waters is on trial in Tacoma for her alleged role in the 2001 arson at the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture. It was one of a number of incidents of vandalism in the Northwest attributed to Earth Liberation Front's campaign to rid the world of things that aren't "wild." So what is wild?

On the afternoon of May 21, 2001, investigator Cheryl Glenn of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) walked through the charred remains of several buildings at the Jefferson Poplar Farm in Clatskanie, Ore. Periodically she would stop, adjust her gloves, get down on her hands and knees, and pull out of the dirt melted bits and pieces of what she would later describe as "initiating components" to buckets filled with gasoline. After bagging much of the evidence, she photographed the spray-painted epitaph on the side of one of the only standing buildings:

You cannot control what is WILD –ELF

It was the day of the Earth Liberation Front's double whammy. Earlier, more than 200 miles to the north, someone had torched the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture.

Almost seven years later, a lengthy federal investigation called Operation Backfire has been followed by guilty pleas from 13 eco-saboteurs, a suicide, and a search for four fugitives. And a trial today enters its third week at U.S. District Court in Tacoma. Briana Waters, 32, of Oakland, Calif., is accused of being the lookout for the arson at the Center for Urban Horticulture. The prosecution has had investigators testify about numerous arsons committed in a five-year period, and Lacey Phillabaum, who previously pleaded guilty in the UW arson, has testified against Waters, who is now a mother and violin teacher. Phillabaum stated that her friend not only participated as a lookout but also provided a "clean room" for the arsonists to assemble their timing devices. In coming weeks, at least two other former Earth Liberation Front members are expected to testify against Waters.

Unlike the cases of the 11 Earth Liberation Front members who were sentenced last summer in Eugene, Ore., the federal prosecutor for the Western District of Washington isn't going to quibble as to whether Waters is a terrorist. Rather, the government alleges that the gas-filled buckets, connected to timing devices and fused by road flares, were incendiary devices and therefore subject to a federal statute that might hammer Waters with a mandatory minimum sentence of 35 years. If she is found guilty of conspiring to torch the Center for Urban Horticulture and the jury agrees that the gas buckets with timing components were incendiary devices, Waters will serve more time in federal prison than any of the other arsonists.

The trial before Judge Franklin Burgess is riveting, with the drama of former friends testifying against Waters, crime-scene investigators detailing how they investigate an arson, and the defense team seeking to impeach prosecution witnesses. But another drama inside and out of the courtroom focuses on the notion of what's wild. In other words, what was it, exactly, that the Earth Liberation Front cell was trying to liberate?

From 1996 until 2001, the group sought to warn or threaten corporations and the federal government to not harm the wild through dangerous vandalism. Their ideas seem to parallel "deep ecologists" who view humanity's use of nature for monetary gain as wrong. But rather than define what is wild, this group tried to destroy what they believed was not wild – logging companies, buildings at Vail ski resort, Bonneville Power Authority transmission towers, poplar plantations, SUVs, meat packing plants. The court proceedings are revealing a cultural canyon between what most of us believe is wild and what Earth Liberation Front believed was not.

For example, the trial spectators separate themselves as if they are at a wedding. Waters is a graduate of The Evergreen State College, the unconventional school near Olympia. While there, she was active in the forest-preservation movement. Her senior thesis was a documentary about the tree-sittings in Randle, Wash., in the summer of 2000. Her supporters exhort trial attendees to look "normal" because "there is a jury." If they are unable to find conventional clothing, they say to Waters supporters, please do not attend. In court what seems to pass for conventional on that side of the aisle has a thrift-shop feel.

On the other side of the aisle are the federal agents who are not required to testify but who were associated with the lengthy investigation. They are well groomed – pressed dress pants, starched open-collar shirts, leather jackets. Conventional.

Juries for federal trials in Tacoma are pooled from Pierce County to Clark County, a wide belt of geography that is dominated by the legacies of logging and fishing. Ironically, the loggers and fishers sought that sort of work to spend their every day in the wild. Not behind a desk. They hunted elk, fished for steelhead, and marveled at the osprey hovering over the river. The distance between the heirs to that legacy and Earth Liberation Front is, perhaps, not that far. But the perceived divide is great: Earth Liberation Front's actions were premised on a belief that the system is incapable of moving fast enough to save the wild, while during the past decade resource-dependent communities like Aberdeen and Longview believe the system has moved too fast. Southwestern Washington is licking wounds suffered at the hands of regulations to protect the Northern spotted owl and curtailing commercial fishing.

It is up to Waters and her counsel to help the jury understand that while she might appreciate what Earth Liberation Front did, she is innocent of the charges, not guilty of using arson as a tool to punish the so-called destroyers of wild. And she values the wild as they do.

Whatever the jury verdict in this case, the conflict over the definition of wild in the Pacific Northwest will continue. Law enforcement seems to have tamed one element of the debate, but as long as there are proposals for logging or new roads in the forests, construction of mega-mansions, expansions of ski resorts, or opportunities to shoot a cougar or black bear, there will be conflicts. What is one person's wild is another's nuisance. That's the thing. For most people, wild is broadly defined. It can be a coyote in Seattle's Discovery Park or the vast Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana. To some, the Red-tailed hawk soaring above the Jefferson Poplar Farm, or the American pipet on the roof of the Center for Urban Horticulture, is also wild. Perhaps, then, it was hubris, youthful hubris, for Earth Liberation Front to tell us what is not.

The ATF agent, Cheryl Glenn, works out of the Portland office. She is not flashy, seems down to earth, pragmatic, outdoorsy, able to do her job well. As she testified, she didn't seem to hold anger, bear a grudge, or even have an opinion about Earth Liberation Front tactics. She investigated a fire. She picked up burned pieces of plastic, photographed the corners of walls where a fire ignited, and sought clues about who started the flames.

Several days after Glenn shipped her bags of evidence and photos to an ATF lab in Walnut Creek, Calif., a communique was issued which reiterated what was "tagged" on the Jefferson Poplar Farm building after the fire: "Done because hybrid poplars are an ecological nightmare threatening native populations. You can not control what is wild." Six years later, and after two weeks of testimony, that statement is still the only indication of what Earth Liberation Front thought the world should look like: no hybrid poplars.

If there are no more arsons or other acts of vandalism, the feds can claim that the lengthy sentences were a successful deterent. Environmental activism will continue through mainstream lobbying, litigation, and land acquisition. Those processes will define what is wild and protect it, through consensus. And if she is found guilty, Briana Waters will likely have no influence from inside a prison.


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